Film review: Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn. Picture: Warner Brothers.

Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn. Picture: Warner Brothers. - Credit: Archant

Edward Norton’s career has had its ups and downs, as he has steered an often fractious course through Hollywood, but you can never say he’s lacked ambition.

After five years when he's hardly been seen on the big screen, for his comeback he is writing, directing and starring in a 50s New York private eye drama, an attempt at an East Coast equivalent of Chinatown, but with a gumshoe called Lionel who has Tourette's Syndrome.

The film begins with Norton sitting in a car telling the audience about his condition and displaying all his tics and inappropriate verbal outbursts. The reaction to an actor in a movie revealing his character has a condition is, I'd hope, the exact opposite of the reaction you'd have when a real person reveals that they have a condition: impatience and annoyance. Audience aren't wowed as they once were by this kind of thing and in the early scenes the suspicion is Norton is playing the condition not the man. Only deep into the film is it clear that he is focussed on the man who happens to be trapped by his condition. (That the way his Tourette's expresses itself includes having a perfect memory does seem mighty convenient though.)

His investigation is into the murder of an old friend and the missing evidence that got him killed. What it uncovers is what every private eye finds when they go sniffing around - corruption. Where Chinatown had water, Brooklyn has parks and recreation.

It came as a surprise afterwards to discover that the book it is based on, by Jonathan Lethem, was set at the end of the 20th century, because the late 50s setting seems integral to the film. Lionel works for an office where all the private eyes are old army buddies and a major theme is how the American character changed after the war. Minor spoiler: the baddy turns out to be another Alec Baldwin Trump impersonation. The contemporary parallels jar a little because of the period recreation, the sense of seeing the future being shaped is one of the film's strongest aspects.

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If the film doesn't completely convince - it lacks dramatic incidents, certain reveals are a little obvious and it's a bit too long - it's a bold and decent effort.

Rating: 3/5.

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